allow people to reclaim this kind of experience?
Jean: Yes, to reclaim the experience and all of its implications; that we have the sensory systems to be part of a much larger sensory universe and that we have the psychological systems to be not schizophrenic or uniphrenic, but polyphrenic.
I’ve talked to many people who’ve had similar experiences to this as children, but unlike many of them, I was encouraged to reflect my experience in language. My father came home and asked me what had happened, so I told him and he said, “hot damn! That’s really good!” He didn’t knock it. That was not my only experience, but key experiences tend to recur as fractal waves throughout one’s life.
When I was eight years old I had another huge opening. My dad was writing the Edgar Bergen and Charlie MaCarthy show. We went to deliver the script and Edgar Bergen was sitting with his back towards us and talking to Charlie, his dummy. There was nothing unusual about that, I was used to seeing ventriloquists rehearsing with their dummies.
But as we listened my father said, “I didn’t write this.” Edgar was asking Charlie ultimate questions. What is the nature of life? What does it mean to truly love? Where is the mind? Where is the soul? And this little block of wood with clacking jaws and head full of sawdust was answering with the wisdom of the finest thinkers of all the millennia. Edgar himself was listening and you could see part of his mouth moving, but his eyes were in complete astonishment.
Finally my father, the agnostic Baptist, couldn’t stand any more and he coughed loudly. Edgar turned around and his face went beet red. He said, “hello Jack, hi Jean, you caught us.” My dad said, “what in the world are you doing?” Edgar replied, “I sometimes talk to Charlie, he’s the wisest person I know.” My father was saying, “hey Ed, that’s you, that’s your voice, You’ve just read a lot.” Edgar replied, “yes, I suppose ultimately it is, but you know, when I ask him these questions and he answers, I have no idea what he’s going to say, and what he says is so much more than I know.”
Again, it was like someone walked across my future. I knew that I was being reintroduced to the cosmos within. It was as if we lived in the attic or ourselves with all the floors relatively uninhabited and the basement locked, except when the plumbing explodes. I knew that part of my job was to help reinhabit those floors.
Rebecca: What were some of the early influences that helped to formulate your understanding of consciousness?
Jean: Around my eighth or ninth year I became interested in the world’s religions. I was mathematically retarded but theologically precocious. I began to correspond with seikhs in India. After about the third letter they would ask about job opportunities in America. After the fourth letter, I would get a proposal of marriage and I would angrily write back saying that I was only ten years old and they would say, that’s the perfect age for marriage! (laughter)
Then I read a book which just spoke to my soul – it was Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. It set me off on all kinds of metaphysical quests. When I was fourteen I was sent down to Texas in the summertime, and I got a band of boys to follow me. I set myself up as a teenage messiah and we went on the road with motorcycles. At first we had `saving booths’ but people got bored with our preaching so we then branched off into healing.
So, I had a double life. In the summer I was a teenage messiah with an old Harley Davidson and cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and during the rest of the year I was taking walks with an old man who I had literally run into. I knocked the wind out of him and he said with a thick French accent, “are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?” I said, “yes sir, it looks that way,” and he said, “well, bon voyage.” The following week I met him again. He had a long name but he asked me to call him by the first part which to my ears was something like Mr Tayer.
He had no self-consciousness whatsoever. He had leaky margins and he was falling into lovingness with things all the time. He would fall to the ground in the park in ecstasy to look at a caterpillar with his long gaelic nose raking the ground. “Oh Jean look, a caterpillar! What does a caterpillar become, uh? Moving, changing, transforming – metamorphosis. Can you feel yourself to be a caterpillar? What is it to be a papillon, a butterfly? The butterfly is within you! What is the butterfly of Jean in ten, twenty, thirty years, uh? I replied tentatively, “I think I’ll be flying around the world meeting different peoples and helping them to be what they can be.” This question was my adolescent initiation.
He was something. He had all kinds of strange ways of relating to reality. He’d talk to trees and rocks, addressing them tu, toi, thou. We would lean into the wind and say, “this same wind was once sniffed by Jesus Christ. Alexander the Great – very interesting, Genghis Khan – not so good.(laughter) Here it comes, Jean d’Arc – be filled with Jean d’Arc! Be filled with the tides of history – same molecules.” People followed us around, not laughing at us but with us. He created a kind of conversational gestalt. He would look at you as if you were God in hiding and I would leave my littleness behind when I was with him.
We walked together twice a week for a year and half. The last time I saw him was on April 7th 1955. He was very pale. He went off on this extraordinary riff about spirals. It began with a talk about the floor of Chartres Cathedral and brains and intestines and galaxies and evolution. He said, “Jean, the people of your time at the end of the 20th century will be taking the tiller of the world, but they cannot go directly, they must touch upon every people, every culture – you must do that Jean. It will be a great field of mind, we will be turning the corner on the human race.”
He said, “au revoir Jean,” and I said, “goodbye Mr Tayer, I’ll see you on Tuesday.” My dog Chicky didn’t want to go and was whining. The next Tuesday he didn’t come. For eight weeks I went to meet him but he still didn’t come. He had died that Easter Sunday but I didn’t know it. Years later in graduate school somebody handed me a book without a cover called The Phenomenon of Man. I read it and the words were very familiar. I asked where the cover was and my friend showed it to me with the photo of the author. Mr Tayer had been Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Rebecca: (laughter) That’s great! What have you discovered about the different ways that children learn and how a child who is having difficulty with the traditional system can be helped?
Jean: Every child has difficulty with the traditional system, it’s just that some have certain mindsets that are appropriate to the limited dominant system of the time – linear, analytic, verbal or whatever.
I’ve been engaged in educational experiments for thirty years, setting up alternative programs in schools and now programs in whole countries where art is central to the curriculum, not off at the periphery. There is no such thing as a stupid child, there are just incredibly stupid systems of education. Often I feel that I was educated for around the year 1926, not for the immense complexities of today.
Some people think in images, some in words, some think kinesthetically like athletes. People like Proust have a sort of interior imagery activated by the senses. People from different cultures think differently. I was in Brooklyn in a largely black and hispanic neighborhood. I was brought in to observe very fine teachers trying to reach these kids, and they weren’t. The kids couldn’t care less. They were dull and apathetic.
I followed the kids out into the playground and they were brilliant. They were coming up with complex ideas and developing a whole Byzantine intrigue. Then they would go back into the classroom and bam! dead again. I couldn’t stand it. I pulled a boy over and I said, “Tommy, what’s five plus three plus two?” He said, “oh man, get lost.” I said, “Tommy, what’s this?” and I tapped out the problem with my hands on the table. He said, “that’s ten.” “Why didn’t you say before?” “You didn’t ask me.” You see, I was asking in terms of northern European notions of intelligence of abstract information.
I went home with him. His father had been a jazz musician and he had grown up with rhythmic patterns related to everything. So I went back to the school and began with the basics – spelling out `cat’. I said, “let’s make a C with our bodies, then an A, then a T and close your eyes and see a cat.” I played it out on many levels and of course they got it. Well, you might say what about rhododendrons? (laughter) But once you heal the wounded learner by finding the particular frame of mind, then kids will learn.
As you go along, you realize that we are really state dependent in our learning. If you begin to change the whole frequency domain of brain and mind and you play the orchestral symphonic form of different states of consciousness, you will find talents just laying there in wait.
I was brought to the home of a child who was an inventor. He invented upside-down lighthouses for submarines, revolving goldfish bowls for tired